Christian Camargo and Jennifer Ikeda
in Hamlet
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Christian Camargo and Jennifer Ikeda
in Hamlet
(© Gerry Goodstein)
For English-speaking actors, the role of Hamlet has the same effect Mount Everest exercises on mountaineers. They have to climb it because it's there. But the ascent is treacherous and not everyone gets to plant a flag at the top. Take Christian Camargo, who's assumed the part in David Esbjornson's Theatre for a New Audience production of Hamlet at the Duke on 42nd Street. He gets far up the steep incline but advances no farther, waylaid by the four famous soliloquies. And a Hamlet without a thoroughly successful Hamlet is, of course, inescapably compromised.

For example, in the first solo speech, which begins "Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt," he seems to have taken to heart the phrase "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/Seems to me all the woes of this world," because the reading is weary, stale, flat and therefore unprofitable. Hamlet is in mourning for his murdered father, but that doesn't mean he's gone catatonic.

Where Camargo is most effective is in the play's second half when Hamlet's highly active action arises from the frustration he's feeling at taking so long to follow through on that pledge to take revenge on his father's death by killing his too-quickly acquired stepfather Claudius (Casey Biggs). Throughout, the actor seems turned on by the challenges Hamlet feels relating to the characters around him -- notably in the torrid bedroom scene with his mother Gertrude (Alyssa Bresnahan), whom he considers faithless. Perhaps Camargo's best moments on stage occur when Hamlet is advising the visiting players to speak their speeches "trippingly on the tongue." At that moment, it's what he allows himself to do.

Taking the dare on with what's often called the world's greatest play, Esbjornson is roughly as effective as Camargo -- except in one brief sequence he handles so perceptively it's tempting to give him full marks for the enterprise. Although the Bard leaves Gertrude's complicity in the older Hamlet's poisoning by Claudius open to interpretation, Esbjornson sees her as unaware and, as the play unfolds, increasingly suspicious of the man with whom she posted "with dexterity to incestuous sheets." As a result, there's a point late in the play when Claudius approaches Gertrude and she subtly recoils from him. It's a gesture that may never have been seen before and may never be seen again -- but it's a dilly.

Esbjornson also has great fun with the "to thine own self be true" exchange between Polonius (Alvin Epstein) and his departing son, Laertes (Graham Hamilton). On the other hand, his intercutting the tragedy's two opening scenes and marking them with freeze-frame posturing is no improvement on the Bard's plotting.

Credit is also due Esbjornson for the high-quality turns he's gotten from Biggs, Bresnahan, Epstein, and, especially Jennifer Ikeda as the engulfed-by-madness Ophelia, Tom Hammond as a particularly sympathetic Horatio, and John Christopher Jones as a bemused gravedigger. They all consistently speak trippingly on the tongue, even if Hamlet does not.